As any Minnesotan knows, if you layer meat, veggies and noodles, mix in a can of condensed soup and throw it in the oven you’ll get hot dish.

What started as a staple of church basement potlucks and family gatherings has evolved into more than a recipe, becoming a hallmark of you-betcha Minnesota culture.

Everywhere else it’s just casserole.

So, where did hot dish come from and why has the term become so distinctly Minnesotan? That’s the latest reader question for Curious Minnesota, the newspaper’s community-driven reporting project that invites readers to join the newsroom and ask questions they want answered. This question came in anonymously from a reader who had never heard the term until living here.

Long before Jimmy Fallon flew to the Twin Cities to try it on “The Tonight Show” — during last year’s Super Bowl — hot dish was simply a descriptive phrase. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a hot dish was literally a serving dish that was heated to keep food warm. Later, food writers and homemakers used the term to refer to a meal’s warm entree, said food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey.

“[The term] comes from the need to be clear that you’re serving a hot dish vs. a cold dish,” Eighmey said.

The concept of the hot dish gained popularity during World War I when the federal government encouraged Americans to re-evaluate their meals.

“When you get to World War I, people were called upon by the government as a patriotic effort to conserve food, in particular meat and wheat,” Eighmey said.

The Federal Food Administration released cookbooks with practical and food-saving recipes. Several included recipes for hot pots — mixtures of meat, vegetables and sauce cooked on the stove, Eighmey said.

Although historians believe the term was used earlier, the first recipe titled “hot dish” was found in a 1930 cookbook compiled by Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid in Mankato. The recipe included two pounds of hamburger, tomato soup, Creamettes and a can of peas, among other ingredients.

Popularity of the “one-dish meal” returned after World War II when President Harry S. Truman asked Americans to conserve food for European countries recovering from the war.

Even when food restrictions ended, Americans continued making hot dish because the baby boom forced them to again stretch their resources, Eighmey said. By then, hot dish had also become a Minnesota fixture.

Hot dish heats up

In terms of early hot dish milestones, two stick out: Campbell’s released its condensed cream soups in 1934, and in 1953, Ore-Ida’s founders developed the Tater Tot. These companies helped fuel hot dish’s popularity by including hot dish recipes on product packaging.

“Campbell’s Soups really promoted that whole style of cooking,” said Beatrice Ojakangas, a Minnesota cook and author.

Decades later, the dish’s ingredients have gotten more daring (well, sort of). “Hot Dish Heaven,” a cookbook written by former Star Tribune Taste editor Ann Burckhardt, includes classics like Tater Tot and tuna noodle hot dish along with a mixture that calls for zucchini, shredded carrots and croutons.

“It’s just something that evolved and something that caught on because it worked,” Burckhardt said about hot dish.

In recent years, hot dish has made a splash outside the confines of church basements and the kitchen. Apart from cookbooks, it has been featured in songs, mystery novels, haikus and at the Minnesota State Fair (Ole and Lena’s hot dish on a stick).

Hot dish competitions are held throughout Minnesota each year. In Washington, Minnesota’s congressional representatives compete in an annual Hotdish-Off. And it was recently announced that the group behind the famous international hot-dog eating contest will host a hot-dish eating showdown this summer.

When Jimmy Fallon visited a family in Champlin before the Minneapolis Super Bowl, what did he eat? That Tater Tot hot dish, of course.

“We tend to be culinary snobs, but ... the truth is deep down, we like hot dish,” said Jeanne Cooney, the author of the “Hot Dish Heaven” mystery series. “In truth, nothing tastes as good on a cold Saturday evening, as a plate of hot dish.”

Despite its lasting popularity and nostalgia, the precise origins of hot dish and the reason the name caught on exclusively in Minnesota is largely undocumented.

“It’s the great Minnesota mystery,” Eighmey said.

Emma Dill is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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